Nonprofits went virtual due to COVID-19. Some aren’t planning to go back

Some nonprofit leaders and consultants say the lessons and skills their organizations have acquired during the pandemic will shape how they operate beyond COVID-19. (Despositphotos)

Some nonprofit leaders and consultants say the lessons and skills their organizations have acquired during the pandemic will shape how they operate beyond COVID-19. (Depositphotos)

When the pandemic began, BEACON House, Inc., a Hagerstown nonprofit dedicated to providing STEAM education to low-income and minority students, lost not only most of its revenue streams but also the school buildings out of which it operated its before- and after-school care. Out of the five programs BEACON House normally offers, only Beacons of Health, which connects families and individuals with certified insurance navigators, survived the duration of the pandemic.

Like many nonprofits, BEACON House quickly realized its only option was pivoting to virtual programming. Now, even as Maryland schools plan to reopen, the nonprofit isn’t counting on pivoting back.

The organization plans to continue its pandemic-era programming, which includes virtual and hybrid STEAM classes for children on topics ranging from cinematography to app development, into 2021, said founder and CEO Anthony Williams.

Virtual programming is such an integral part of BEACON House’s plan for next year that the organization’s budget includes subscriptions to software like Zoom, and new hires are being trained in how to use these tools to conduct online class.

In addition to continuing its online services, BEACON House will resume an in-person before- and after-care program in a temporary D.C. location next month,

“As an organization, you have to adapt and change and not become complacent,” Williams said. “It is about staying current.”

This sentiment — that creativity and flexibility are the keys to surviving the pandemic — rings true for nonprofits throughout the region, said Michelle Nusum-Smith, a consultant to nonprofits through her firm, The Word Woman LLC.

However, not all organizations in Maryland, which is home to 32,000 nonprofits and 263,000 jobs in the nonprofit sector, are sticking as resolutely to their COVID-19 programming as BEACON House.

“It’s a mixed bag,” Nusum-Smith said, adding that organizations that were hit harder by the pandemic initially seem to be exercising more caution now, whereas those that were not are still in the mindset that things will return to normal sooner rather than later.

Others simply can’t afford to rely on virtual programming. In the case of smaller nonprofits, some lack the funding and manpower necessary to create high-quality, sustainable online programming. In other cases, an organization simply can’t carry out its mission effectively in a virtual space.

Lead4Life, a nonprofit that aims to mitigate youth incarceration and out-of-home placement, reinstated some face-to-face programming two months ago. Getting out of the house is important for the populations the organization serves, such as those who suffer from depression and anxiety, according to Lead4Life’s founder and executive director, Jennifer Gauthier.

The organization has developed extensive health and safety measures and has hired additional staff so that the youths can be placed into smaller groups that allow for social distancing; whereas the organization previously would previously transport six or seven children in a van, they can now safely transport only three.

“It’s really just adapting to probably what the times are going to be for quite some time,” Gauthier said. “But we know that in-person contact is extremely important for the population that we work with … Having interactions with other people means a lot and can do a lot for their conditions.”

While Lead4Life is now mostly operating in-person, it still participates in virtual resource fairs —  events where organizations come together to offer services to a community.

Some nonprofits plan to continue utilizing some of the solutions they’ve discovered even once the pandemic ends. BEACON House, for example, has begun doing consulting work. The nonprofit helps organizations, like Star Community, Inc., a nonprofit also based in Hagerstown that provides support to people with disabilities, to improve their staff’s technological skills and to create hands-on activity kits for their clients.

“It’s been a new robust revenue stream,” Williams said.

Although a small number of organizations are desperate to return to their regular programming, Nusum-Smith said, she anticipates that the sector will emerge from this crisis with useful new tools, resources and experiences at its disposal.

“I think that those organizations will see the positive impact in their bottom line, in the stories that they tell about the impact of their organization and in being able to take the lessons from a situation like the pandemic and put (them) to work in other ways,” she said.


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